How and Why You Should Transition from Field to Inside Sales

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Justin Roff-Marsh
Justin Roff-Marsh



Field sales has been dying for years. It’s been ailing for so long that no one noticed its actual time of passing. Pretty much everyone knows it (intuitively, at least). But no one’s prepared to acknowledge it.

The modern salesperson still feels that the field is their rightful place of battle. However, as each year passes, they spend less time there. And when they do gear up and venture forth, their efforts on that front are increasingly erring towards customer service activities.

They spend more of their selling time on the phone, not in the field. It’s frustrating — and a source of great embarrassment — but there’s nothing the salesperson can do about it.

Nowadays, salespeople are significantly more efficient when they are inside. And customers don’t want a salesperson to come by unless they conclude that a face-to-face visit is absolutely critical. These two facts of life have converted most field salespeople into reluctant inside salespeople who venture out only occasionally.

They're not excited about working inside, so they are happy to be distracted from telephone sales by customer service and administrative activities — meaning not a lot of selling actually gets done. And since they spend so little time selling face-to-face, many salespeople are either out of practice or simply lacking in skills they've had little cause to develop.

Not surprisingly, denial is not a winning strategy. Salespeople have adapted to this new reality to the extent that they absolutely must, but few organizations are prepared to explicitly recognize that times have changed. They're not taking advantage of the enormous upside that our new reality presents.

Let this article be a stake in the ground! It’s time to face this new reality and reengineer our sales environments to exploit the spoils of it!

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Why Inside Sales is Outpacing Field Sales

Sales used to be something that happened "out there" — in the field. And there was good reason for that.

Fifty years ago, when the modern sales function evolved, customers were "out there." This is before PBXs, fax machines, cell phones, websites, email, instant messaging, and web conferencing.

If an organization wanted to sell something, it had to send salespeople to where customers were. And if potential customers wanted information to assist in their quest for new products and services, they had to request that a salesperson bring that information to where they were.

Salespeople were an information conduit. They added significant value by ferrying information back and forth between the organization (inside) and its customers (outside).

Times, of course, have changed.

Today, customers can easily reach a salesperson on their cell phone or via email. And if our customer wants to consume information privately, they can do that too. They can browse our websites, our competitors’ websites, and those of industry commentators.

Our customers and prospects are no longer "out there." Modern technology has broken down the divide and invited our customers into our organizations. And this is an invitation our customers have been happy to accept.

Once inside, our customers have discovered that they no longer need to consume information via just one conduit. They can interact with multiple people in our organization, via multiple channels. And they like it that way!

Furthermore, customers are no longer dependent upon field salespeople for transactions. They have choices. If they want to purchase, they can do so by phone or online. And woe betide anyone who thinks that they can force customers to transact with salespeople. Increasingly, customers are as loyal to the channel as they are to the brand.

The Inside-Out Sales Function

Because today's environment is so very different from the environment in which the sales function evolved, a radical redesign is required. And when we build this new sales function we need to build it from the inside out — not from the outside in. This is in keeping with how our customers like to buy.

Consider yourself, by way of example. If you need to make a purchase — any purchase — my guess is that your general preference is to buy online (with no human contact whatsoever). And if that's not practical, you’ll probably seek help from a person via online chat or over the telephone.

Even if you are making a large purchase, I doubt your first instinct is to call and request that a salesperson come visit you in your home or place of business. And if a salesperson does come visit you, it’s likely after several email and telephone conversations.

If this is how customers buy (and it surely is), then this is how we must sell.

Let's try a thought experiment where we rebuild our sales organization from scratch. An inside-out approach means that we start with an inside sales nucleus — as close to Operations as possible — and then add additional layers only when they are absolutely required.

Ecommerce and Customer Service

Who should your first hires be in your brand new organization? Web and customer service team members.

Your website should allow those customers who are so inclined to serve themselves: To consume information and to transact. It should go without saying, but these are your very best customers, so it makes sense to look after them.

Your customer service team is an extension of your web presence. Think of it as a concierge service that sits on top of your website. Regardless of what you sell, your customer service team should be responsible for processing simple transactions (those where customers know pretty much what they want), generating quotes, and handling issues.

Inside Sales

Once you have Customer Service looking after simple transactions, your next step should be to add Sales. And your first sales layer should be an inside one.

Your inside salespeople should have skills and knowledge equivalent (or superior) to your competitors’ field salespeople. Because your inside salespeople are inside specialists, they will each have 30 meaningful selling interactions a day.

As part of your inside sales team, you’ll need a promotions machine. I say "machine" because those 30 interactions a day will result in an insatiable hunger for sales opportunities.

You will need to generate 10 to 20 sales opportunities a day to keep each inside salesperson busy. Therefore, Lead generation hires follow inside salespeople.

Field Sales

As you start to scale the inside sales team, you will experience an increasing requirement for field visits. After all, there are still some activities that genuinely do need to be performed outside.

At this point, it will be tempting to recruit a team of traditional salespeople. But a modicum of caution is advised. If you examine those activities that genuinely do need to be performed in the field, you’ll see that they fall naturally into two categories:

  • Technical activities (e.g. technical requirement discovery and demonstrations)
  • Enterprise sales activities (e.g. running discovery workshops and presenting to executive teams)

You’ll also discover, in most environments, that the greatest preponderance of activities lands in that first category. This should give you pause.

It turns out, in most organizations, your initial field hires should be technical specialists with some sales sensibilities — not archetypal salespeople. These field specialists will be an invaluable resource for your core inside sales team.

When inside salespeople discover a requirement for a field activity, they can push it to a field specialist, who can perform the necessary activity and report back to the inside salesperson who then finalizes the sale.

You will discover that you can build quite a significant sales team before you have a requirement to add true enterprise-class salespeople. In fact, if your organization is generating less than $10 million a year in sales, it’s unlikely that you can justify such a hire. You’ll be better off focusing on building out your core inside sales team and pushing enterprise activities to senior executives.

When you can justify your first enterprise sales hire, it’s wise to make two hires. In addition to the salesperson, employ an executive assistant. The executive assistant can take responsibility for the essential inside activities, leaving your (expensive) new enterprise salesperson free to spend 100% of their time in the field. 

With this configuration, an enterprise salesperson can easily perform three to four field meetings a day — about 10 times the volume of work they could handle if they worked alone.

Built to Scale

You’ll discover that this inside-out approach results in vastly superior interfacing between you and your customers. And that’s nice. But the better news is that this model is easy and inexpensive to scale.

Since almost all of your marketing and sales activity is performed by an inside team, you don’t need regional sales offices, layers of management, and a team of operations people to process expense reports and adjudicate border skirmishes between over-caffeinated commissioned salespeople.

Tips to Transitioning from Field Sales to Inside Sales

Any organization intent on shifting from field to inside sales has to know if that transition will suit its market. If you're weighing the idea of making the switch, consider adjusting the nature of your sales model on a segment by segment basis — changing or maintaining your operations for different accounts based on factors like location, account size, or stage of the customer engagement process.

Another part of the process would be adopting the aforementioned inside-out sales function or another hybrid inside-outside sales model. A successful transition won't be abrupt. There's bound to be some easing into your new normal. Finding an initial middle ground between field and outside sales will be central to that process.

You'll also need to pay careful attention to your inside sales reps and manage them right. It can be difficult for managers to account for a remote team. The most crucial factor in successfully managing remote salespeople is consistently finding time to interact with them personally. As Norman Behar, CEO of Sales Readiness Group, puts it, "I’m a huge believer in technology, CRM, video conferencing, social networks...but they're not a replacement for the personal interaction necessary to manage, coach and lead your team."

And the growing pains and complications from the transition from field to inside sales aren't specific to organizations as a whole. Individual sales reps will need to make adjustments and take some strides to better acclimate themselves to their new model.

HubSpot Channel Account Manager Chris Moore has this advice for reps making the switch, "Spend a few days getting familiar with the tools you will use every day working from home — things like Zoom or Slack for communication. Also, spend some time making a working area you are proud of. It doesn't have to be elaborate, just something you will be comfortable working in for 8 hours plus."

If you're a rep adjusting to inside sales, Moore also advises you seek guidance by "[booking] time with folks that have been remote for years and get the best practices to follow." Getting acclimated to remote work might not be intuitive, so touching base with more experienced remote workers can be a big help.

And when you can, Moore says to "use video as much as possible, this will be a game-changer for you. It makes the meeting feel much more personal and closer to the field sales you were used to."

Ultimately, while the transition might be grating at times, it will be worth it. As HubSpot Senior Channel Account Manager Deanna Povec puts it, "Inside sales allows me the opportunity to put more time into thoughtful meeting prep, prospecting new business opportunities, and crafting powerful follow-ups. Having the flexibility to not have to commute allows me to focus on revenue-generating activity that yields greater results not only for me personally, but for my team, and my company!"

The death of field sales does not mark the end of field salespeople. They still exist, and they always will. What it does mark is the beginning of a new era, where sales is essentially an inside function.

You’ll come to discover that the inside-out sales model results in happier customers, a lower average cost of sale, and a faster-growing business. It’s time to be done with the grieving so we can knuckle down and exploit this exciting new reality.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 8, 2015 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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